For years I’ve advocated for single-composer concerts as the best way for listeners to get familiar with someone’s music, but now I’m starting to have some second thoughts.
Sure, just as a painter’s work can be overlooked in a group exhibition or a specific author’s poem might get lost in an anthology, the work of a composer might be soon forgotten when presented on a hodgepodge concert program. How many times have you walked away remembering all the music you heard on a new music concert featuring unfamiliar work by eight different composers?
Yet by hermetically sealing off a single composer’s work, are we somehow losing a contextual framework for listening to it? And, if the various works being presented together in such a retrospective were all written for various ensembles to be the one new music work on that program, or at least to be the one work by that composer on that program, are we somehow taking the music out of context by lumping it all together?
I’ve heard people react to single-composer concerts with comments like: “It’s just too much to take in,” or “All that music sounds the same.” But these reactions aren’t really fair since most composers have an identifiable sound that characterizes their work, and each work more than likely wasn’t intended to be experienced in such close proximity to others of its kin.
As a composer, I personally love such programs because it allows me to get inside the head of another composer, but I’m willing to concede that others might not want such a heady experience all the time. Who besides the judges on Iron Chef seek out multi-course meals including dessert, all featuring broccoli? Could a healthier listening diet be created by devising concert programs featuring works created in the same year or works written in response to similar events? You know, an evening of music written in 1996 or musical responses to war, etc. Clearly there are problems with the eight-unfamiliar-works approach, but what are some other viable alternatives to an evening of just one compositional voice?